According to Aldous Huxley, the brain’s main function is not to create consciousness, but to reduce it.
That would explain why primates with very big brains start wars, excrete in drinking water, vote for major party candidates in national elections, and otherwise exhibit a level of consciousness far below that of your average self-respecting rock.
Here is the Huxley quote in full:
To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system.
Huxley’s point, a good one, is that our conception of mind, consciousness, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it just isn’t big enough.
The same is true for our conception of God.
In a few days, Christians all over the world will be celebrating a certain conception of God. Here in the USA, they have been preparing for the big event by chopping down small trees and sticking them in living room corners; frantically fighting traffic jams while rushing from store to store buying stuff; blasting a certain canon of music from every audio apparatus in the land, drowning all eardrums beneath a warm-and-syrupy tidal wave of simple melodies you hardly ever have to touch any black keys to play; imbibing large quantities of sugar (and sugar’s even more pernicious cousin, alcohol) in vain hopes that the ensuing rush will overwhelm seasonal affective disorder and other symptoms of vitamin D deficiency; and in other small ways demonstrating their awed gratitude to the Lord of the Worlds, the All-Merciful All-Compassionate Source of All Being.
Theoretically, all of these activities are supposed to be celebrating the birth of Jesus. According to majoritarian Christian dogma, Yeshua was the “son of God,” whatever that may mean. So what do small coniferous trees in living room corners, frantic shopping and gift-exchanging, mythical big fat white-bearded guys in silly red suits, boozy egg nog and kisses under the mistletoe, etcetera etcetera have to do with the birth of God’s alleged son? The long answer comes from folklorists and historians. The short answer is: “Not a whole lot.”
Our reducing valve of consciousness has reduced the whole “birth of the son of God” concept into something (or a whole lot of little somethings) much, much smaller. But that’s OK, because celebrating the “birth” was already a reduction of the “son of God” concept, which was itself a reduction of the “God” concept, which was itself a reduction of supreme ineffable Reality to which the G-word refers, which…well, let me back up and start at the beginning.
As every “primitive” society on earth knows, everything is conscious. Among pretentious, educated folk, the philosophical name for that position is panpsychism, also known as panexperientialism. In his recent book God Exists But Gawd Does Not, David Ray Griffin argues that the evidence for a conscious universe, in which everything all the way down to sub-atomic quanta has its own “experience” or “consciousness” or “point of view,” refutes claims that only an omnipotent creator God (pejoratively termed “Gawd” by Griffin) could have created the miracle of consciousness.
Quantum physics clearly shows that physical reality cannot be separated from consciousness. The observed and observer are two sides of the same reality-coin; remove one, and you’ve removed the whole thing. In other words, science has definitively answered the question “Does a tree fall in the forest if there’s nobody there to hear it?” with a resounding “no.” There is no tree without someone being aware of it. But that “someone” doesn’t necessarily have to be human. The universe (including the illusion of linear unidirectional time) is created by the perceptive acts of conscious biological organisms of all kinds according to Robert Lanza’s Biocentrism. Panexperientialists say these biological universe-creators are actually agglomerations of much smaller conscious entities, all the way down to quarks and quanta.
So what does that have to do with our conception of God not being big enough?
Well, for one thing, God has to be big enough to embrace an outrageous number of perspectives on reality: Not just the reality-perspectives of every one of the world’s more than seven billion people, but also all the animals and plants and their component cells and the building blocks of those cells down to the tiniest sub-atomic building blocks, plus all non-organic matter as well, and the space and time and energy in and in between it.
We might say that God is the very real unity underlying all of that apparent diversity. (Physicists have indeed found traces of a primordial connection linking everything to everything else – faint footprints of the Unity from which multiplicity emerges.)
That is a very big God for small-minded people to constrict.
If there were a last word on God, which there isn’t, it might be:
Which means, “God is greater!” Greater than what? Greater than everything, including all words and conceptions we might try to apply to Him/Her/It.
The natural and correct human response to such Greatness is awed humility and absolute submission: in a word, islam.
People can be in that state – the state of awed submission to the divine – without being nominal Muslims. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Taoists, Native Americans, gnostics, maybe even agnostics can theoretically be muslims with a small m.
But without a traditional scaffolding of wisdom teachings, symbols, rituals, sacred utterances, and a grounding in daily practice, it’s hard to get very deep into that state and stay there. Without that scaffolding, the petty false gods of ones own ego and selfish interests tend to take over.
The history of monotheism is an endless cycle of discoveries of how big God really is, followed by panicked retreats into egotisms and bureaucracies designed to keep Him small. The Hebrew prophets caught glimpses of the divine greatness; then Yahwist priests and scribes conspired to reduce Him to manageable size, and used the resulting misconception to grab wealth and power. Today, the already-massively-reduced figure of Yahweh has been shrunken to almost microscopic size by “modern, liberal, humanist” Jews, who have replaced the whole notion of God with an idolatrous vision of the deified “Jewish people,” whose suffering in the Holocaust amounts to a kind of neo-crucifixion.
Christians, for their part, shrunk Yahweh down by imagining Him as a “father” (and a “son” and a “holy ghost”) while simultaneously enlarging Him from tribal shibboleth to universal creator and caretaker.
The Christian confusion of Jesus the human being, prophet and teacher with God – the koan at the heart of Christianity “how can a man be God?” – was cleared up by Islam. As were many other things.
Yet ironically, Muslims today, despite the clear teachings that have come down to them, suffer from small-minded views of God right alongside the Christians and Jews. Those who are termed “fundamentalists” (who might be better termed obscurantists) imagine that God’s main concern is that they follow a long list of very detailed rules governing trivial activities of daily life. Some of these folks are fanatical sectarians who think that everyone who doesn’t agree with them is a lesser being at best, deserving of capital punishment at worst. These boneheaded takfiris seem blind to the almost infinitely varied perspectives that the real God must be able to embrace!
So this Christmas, or at Friday salaat al-jumuah, or wherever and whenever you have an opportunity to pray, please consider making the following supplication:
Ya Allah, o God, please save us from people whose conception of You is too small; and help our own conceptions grow ever-larger, even though we know they will never fully embrace your Reality.
Dr. Kevin Barrett, a Ph.D. Arabist-Islamologist is one of America’s best-known critics of the War on Terror.
He also has appeared many times on Fox, CNN, PBS, and other broadcast outlets, and has inspired feature stories and op-eds in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune, and other leading publications.
Dr. Barrett has taught at colleges and universities in San Francisco, Paris, and Wisconsin; where he ran for Congress in 2008. He currently works as a nonprofit organizer, author, and talk radio host.